In a fantasy set in a surreal world of pipes and plungers, the fates of two young women intertwine.
Plunger in hand, 19-year-old Seg leaves the Orphanage, the only home she has known, to fulfill her destiny as a Plumbess, adept in the mysteries of Plumbing. This is real plumbing, but with a mind-boggling twist. The massive Orphanage trains waifs (their origins are cloudy) in the intricacies of sewage treatment, pipework, and drains and tells them how to clean up filth and keep water flowing before sending them out to serve hapless humanity and powerful Pipe Lords. Plungers are weapons, divining rods, obstetric tools, and readers and destroyers of souls. Drains respond to a Plumbess’ power in arresting and at times horrific ways: A flooded library agrees to drain itself; a drain in a sink obligingly enlarges to accommodate body parts. (This book is not for the squeamish.) Haunted by nightmares and her hatred of a fellow Plumbess named Eck (discovered as a child in a den of snakes and unable to think of herself as human), Seg finds work in the parched manor of Hope Springs, where a Baron controls the water source as a protest against corruption. Fawley’s (An Exception, 2018, etc.) novel is a unique and audacious take on fantasy worldbuilding, despite introducing its vision of Plumbing sorcery with a weighty, enigmatic solemnity that may induce head-scratching and a disinclination to read further. (The book’s larger fault is its abrupt ending, intended perhaps to signal a sequel but giving the impression that a page is missing.) Fortunately, patience will be rewarded for those seeking wildly imaginative and thought-provoking storytelling. Eck serves a wealthy Pipe Lord whose towering, water-rich Manor is capped by a permanent storm and wrapped in a web of pipework that captures “the very moisture from the sky.” Disturbing wrongness there (the Dry Princess will haunt readers) will push Eck to untold feats of Plumbing, spark a profound sacrifice, and change Seg’s life as a Plumbess forever.
An enjoyably original tale: part steampunk, part horror, and part fantastical commentary on the effects of human-generated droughts and floods and the connection between civilization and proper drainage.